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“Cultivating Gratitude”

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Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

I want to start by pointing out a few basic things about this text.  It starts with “On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.”  There is no region between Samaria and Galilee.  They border one another.  There would not have been a wall at this border, so we think Jesus was traveling through the border region.

We also need to remember that leprosy in the Bible was not the same thing that we call leprosy today, which is Hansen’s disease.  Leprosy is now curable because it responds easily to antibiotics.  But in the ancient world, they didn’t know about bacteria and antibiotics.  And they didn’t know what caused some skin conditions to get worse and some to go away, what made some spread to other people and others never change.  “What they knew was this: Sometimes what starts out as a simple rash on the skin, can lead to some very bad things, and what starts with one person can end up affecting many more.  So what did they do with that knowledge?  They kept those ‘lepers’ away is what they did.  They separated them from other people . . . except for other lepers.  A scaly patch on the back of your hand, a sudden discoloration on the end of your nose, could cost you your job.  It could cost you your family and friends.  A little shiny white spot on the thick of your thumb, and life as you know it is gone.  Unclean — outcast — off you go, with the other ‘lepers.’  There were rules to make that happen, laws about how far away lepers had to stand from other people, about how they had to wear worn-out clothes and warn people in a loud voice whenever they were walking down the street.”[1]  “Unclean!” they would call out.  How would you like to have to declare your exclusion with every step?  to announce your disease with every breath?  to further your own loneliness by warning people to stay away?  to announce the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?  It would be like walking through life shouting, for all to hear: “Stay back! I have cancer!”  or constantly having to declare one’s self “Widow!” or “Victim!” or “Addict!”

What a horrible way to live.  It’s no wonder they cried out, “Jesus!  Have mercy on us!”  They needed some mercy.  They needed anything he could give them.  And he gave them everything. The Bible says, When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priest.”  That’s what lepers would have to do to be declared clean.  They had to go to the priest to be examined, and if the priest saw no signs of the disease, they could be admitted back into society.  It all hinged upon the priest.  So Jesus told them, without yet healing them, “Go and show yourselves to the priest.”  They all turned to do it, without any assurance that their prayers were being answered.  They didn’t wait until they had proof, visual confirmation of the miracle.  They didn’t wait until they understood why Jesus said this.  They didn’t wait until they had their act together.  Jesus said, “Go, and they went.”  What would make them do that?  Had the stories they’d heard about Jesus been so powerful that they’d do whatever he said?  Were they so bored that they figured, “We’ve got nothing else to do!”  Or were they so desperate that, sure, they’d try anything.

Jesus said, “Go show yourselves to the priest” and they turned and began the journey.  And that’s when it happened.  As they went, they were made clean.  As they went.

So these ten lepers did what Jesus told them to do, and they were made clean.  Following Jesus’ instructions had turned out pretty fabulous, so nine of them continued to follow his instructions to the letter of the law.  Jesus told them to go to the priests so we shouldn’t blame them for not turning around to thank Jesus.

Without judging the nine, let’s look at the one.  We don’t know, of course, what made him return.  We are told he was a Samaritan, so perhaps it was his status as an outsider to Jewish faith that made him different.  But I think that was more Jesus’ way of shaking up his audience than it was an explanation for why he was grateful.  But because of his return, Jesus said not only that he had been made clean, but that he had been made well, that he had been made whole.  We need some of that.  We need some wholeness.

One of the articles I read in preparation for this sermon began with these words: “Take a look around.  There is plenty of cause to be worried.”[2]  I said, “Amen to that!”  Then he began to list all the things going on nationally that were cause for worry.  I was halfway through the list before I realized the article was from 2013.  I wanted to say “Wait until 2020!”  The author’s response to all these problems was to write “I think we are in sore need of thanksgiving. . . .Looking at these dimension of our life, you might wonder why I call for thanksgiving.  Wouldn’t lament be more appropriate?  Or a cry for justice?  Or the call to action?  Certainly these are also possibilities and have their time and place.  But just now, and given today’s reading, I am reminded that of all of our responses to events blessed or challenging, great or small, one of the most powerful — and oft overlooked — is that of thanksgiving. . . .Have you ever noticed just how powerful it is not only to receive blessing but also to name it and give thanks for it?  Maybe you’re at dinner with family or friends, and it’s one of those meals where time just stops for a little while and you’re all bound together by this nearly unfathomable sense of community and joy.  And then you lean over to another, or maybe raise your glass in a toast, and say, “This is great.  This time, this meal, you all.  Thank you.”  And in seeing and giving thanks, the original blessing is somehow multiplied.  You’ve been blessed a second time.  Or maybe you were at the Grand Canyon (or some other wonderful spot), taking in the beauty of the vista, when you lean over to your companion and say, “This is so beautiful.  I’m so glad you’re here to share it with me.”  And again, the blessing is multiplied and you’ve been blessed yet again.  Thanksgiving is like that.  It springs from perception — our ability to recognize blessing — and articulation — giving expression, no matter how inadequate it may seem at the time, of our gratitude for that blessing.”[3]

But what about when you’re not feeling it?  What about those hard times, those “look around—there’s a lot to worry about” times?  Can we be grateful even then?  This same writer, in a different article, tells of a friend who has a unique response to the casual question “How are you?”  Instead of saying “I’m fine” or “Pretty good” or any of the innocuous responses we often give, she says, “I’m grateful.”  He admits to being surprised by her answer not only the first time he received it, but many times after that.  “How are you?” he asks, and she replies, each time, “I’m grateful.”  He writes, “My colleague chose her words with care.  She wanted to make a point—that gratitude is not only a response to good fortune but also a choice we make.”[4]

I read this article on Friday, the day after our congregation held a listening session in response to a really painful time in our life together.  If you asked me “How are you?”  I don’t know that I would have answered “I’m grateful.”

But then I remembered my friend Stephen.  Two months ago he and his wife Judith were in a horrible car accident.  She was thrown from the vehicle and was left paralyzed.  She spent five weeks in the hospital, most of them in the Critical Care Unit, before dying.  I sat with Stephen a few days later, and he spoke of the pain of watching his beloved experience such trauma, such misery.  It was a horrible five weeks, and he so wishes he could have spared her that suffering.  But in the midst of it, he said, “I am thankful we got to have a good last conversation, and I got to tell her how much I love her, and I got to say goodbye.”  He never would have chosen for his wife to suffer, but in the midst of the suffering, he could still find a reason to be grateful.

I thought back again to our conversation on Thursday evening, looking for reasons to be grateful.  Hear me carefully, please: I am not grateful for this situation.  But in the midst of the pain, could I find reason for gratitude?  I am grateful that approximately 80 people cared enough to join together in that conversation.  I am grateful that some people were able to speak of their pain.  I am grateful that some people were able to share a different perspective.  I am grateful that some people, like Jesus, were able to walk the border region between two places.  I am grateful that people in our church have formed such tight bonds that when they are severed, we grieve.  Kahlil Gibran wrote, “When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”  Whatever pain you find yourself in today, you may not be in a place where you can find a single reason for gratitude.  And that is absolutely okay.  “Gratitude is not a command, it’s an invitation, and one God never tires of making.”[5]

The ten lepers in our story were all made clean.  They were passive recipients of the miracle that took place as they went, as they travelled without understanding.  But for the one, gratitude was what made him whole.

So let’s look at our world again: filled with troubles?  Yes.  Covid numbers are rising.  We can’t gather in the ways our spirits need.  Our nation is deeply divided.  Relationships are strained and money is tight.  Yes, our world is filled with troubles.  It is also filled with blessing, if we will look.

We go out in public and we notice the person who is refusing to wear a mask, or refusing to wear it correctly, and it’s easy to focus on the few.  Gratitude tells us instead to look for those who are masked, for each mask is a gift of compassion and kindness and looking out for the welfare of others.  We need to look, so we can see.

Yes, our world is filled with troubles.  It is also filled with blessing.  May we look.  May we find.

 

[1] Bryte, Scott. “Can’t Stay Away.” Sermons on the Gospel Readings, Series III, Cycle C.

[2] Lose, David. “Second Blessing.” workingpreacher.

[3] “Second Blessing.”

[4] Lose, David. “Gratitude and Grace.” https://www.davidlose.net/2016/10/pentecost-21-c-gratitude-and-grace/

[5] “Gratitude and Grace”

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